Disused canals normally conjure up images of discarded shopping trolleys and part submerged cars. The semi-restored Wey and Arun canal offers walkers the chance to get right amongst nature and couldn’t be any more removed from the stereotype.
Billingshurst to Houghton Bridge
Explore the South Downs without the car. A station to station canal walk. In 1 hour and 20 minutes from London Victoria you could be at Billingshurst railway station in rural West Sussex.
A few minutes walk from Billingshurst station sees you in unspoilt countryside, far away from the crowds and noise of London.
You can walk 15 miles along the route of the old Wey and Arun canal all the way to Houghton Bridge (Amberley station), where you can take the train back to London after having a rest at the riverside cafe or the local pub.
Discover nature without the car – without the hassle.
My 20 mile walk would begin in the West Sussex town of Billingshurst and end in the village of Storrington, passing through Pulborough, Greatham, Amberley and Houghton Bridge.
My guide for the day would be Keith “Fozzie” Foskett who was unfortunately (for him) home from his 3000 mile thru-hike in the USA many months early. Setting off at 8am the weather was very much on our side.
The Wey and Arun canal as the name suggests was once a working canal between the River Wey at Guildford and the River Arun at Pulborough. Partly restored in places, there is plenty to see along the 23 mile route. My South Downs walk would take in approximately 16 miles of the old canal route.
Guildenhurst Bridge Billingshurst
I was very familiar with Billingshurst in West Sussex, like many people I skirted around the village centre on the featureless but brief A29 bypass but I had never walked along the old canal. I was pleasantly surprised by just how rural the area west and south of the town remains.
Within seconds of crossing the modern bypass I was in the middle of fields strewn with buttercups, the sound of cars soon died away and until Pulborough I wouldn’t hear or see another one.
I have a fascination with old maps and industrial heritage (don’t hold that against me!) and love finding remains of old railways, long forgotten WW2 airfields and the like. The Wey South Path offers a glimpse into the industrial age of the canal now long gone from many maps.
Walking through fields, the public footpath in places neglected and enclosed by waist-high nettles, it was easy to spot the canal route. A boggy depression with dense undergrowth and mature trees marked the route in many places. A natural low-point for the surface water to pool and the greenery to flourish.
Canal restoration here would be a slow, painful process and many residents feel it would do more harm than good to the wildlife. A difficult decision to take. At the moment the walker is offered but a mere glimpse into the world of canal engineering, the majority of the route given over to nature.
Arriving at Lording’s Lock I read the information panels provided. This feat of canal engineering involved an aqueduct over the River Arun and an adjacent river-powered waterwheel to fill the canal lock. It looked very clever and as always was a good excuse to snap some photos.
A short walk along the towpath brought me to Orfold Bridge (Lording’s Flood Lock) complete with seating area, water in the canal and waterlilies. The perfect spot for breakfast and photos. All types of pond life live here, skipping, floating and swimming the canal waters.
Lording’s Flood Lock
Such an idyllic spot, I half expected Mr Toad of Toad Hall to bid me good morning. Ignoring the fact I took the photos on a mobile phone I felt very much away from the 21st century. I could have sat here for a while. I might do that next time when I have a few hours to lose.
The nearest main road was now over a mile away, nothing but the sound of footsteps and birdsong interrupted the moment. You can catch a train from London to Billingshurst and be walking here amongst nature. Worth a thought isn’t it; no cars involved.
Eco walking only an hour from London.
Haybarn Swing Bridge
Leaving behind the canal-side picnic spot was not easy but there were many more miles to be walked. The Wey South Path continued to follow the old canal true until as far as Haybarn. I’m going to hazard a guess as to the origins of the location’s name!
The casual canal walker might be forgiven for thinking this swing bridge is in its original location but in fact it originated from West Yorkshire and was installed at Haybarn during 2004. The original brick hump-backed bridge was demolished sometime in the 1940s and replaced with a concrete slab, believed to have been built by German POWs.
It looks the part though and also marks the point in this walk where the Wey South Path sadly deviates significantly from the old canal route. Private property prevents us from following the canal any further or indeed the River Arun for some distance.
Pallingham Quay to Stopham Bridge
The Wey South Path meandered through the West Sussex countryside and I arrived after some enjoyable walking at Pallingham Bridge which is close to the end of the canal. The River Arun being tidal and navigable to this point provided the highway south to the sea for working boats.
I struggle to imagine how busy this spot on the canal would have been but busy it was, until the arrival of the railways stole away that lifestyle. Towpath to footplate.
Heading south away from Pallingham Bridge the route took me through the Coombelands racing stables, a world-famous equine establishment. What it meant for me was some walking along a tarmac lane and not green fields.
As the route took me closer to Pulborough the shrill sound of a steam train whistle could be heard through the trees of Pulborough Park Plantation. The garden centre to the west of Pulborough Station has a narrow-gauge steam railway running through the grounds.
Stopham Bridge to Coldwaltham
After crossing the A283 at Stopham it was time to rest my legs alongside the Grade I listed bridge over the River Arun; built around 1422. Alongside Stopham Bridge is the White Hart pub, now reopened after extensive flood damage during the winter storms of 2013 into 2014.
It seemed rude not to pop into the pub for a refreshing drink, so that’s what I did. Just the one but I made it last long enough to enjoy the view as the Arun flowed swiftly by. It wasn’t yet lunchtime so after a photo or two it was time to follow the Wey South Path once more towards Greatham Bridge.
Just south of the A283 at Stopham the River Arun is joined by the River Rother and there is also a now disused canal cut; not to mention a large water treatment plant with weir. It’s a busy water world and in a wet winter the area is off-limits to walkers due to extensive seasonal flooding.
The bridge in the photo above is an aqueduct, carrying water pipes across the River Arun. In a wet winter this concrete bridge rises out of a huge lake, seemingly a bridge to nowhere. I like quirky things, so a random bridge in the middle of a lake appeals.
After wandering through the water treatment plant the Wey South Path for a matter of a few feet follows the disused railway that once ran from Pulborough to Midhurst. A shame that the old railway route isn’t a public right of way as it would make a great alternative route to the South Downs Way for those that don’t like walking up and down hills.
Hardham Hill Tunnel
The River Arun between Pulborough and Greatham Bridge has a huge meander which combined with shallow areas was a hindrance and delay to navigation. The answer was to build a cut and a tunnel to shorten the route. The canal tunnel under Hardham Hill can still be seen today though of course officially it is closed off by steel grates.
A scramble over some recently cut trees, adjacent to the Wey South Path revealed an opening; the canal southern portal! Now it goes without saying that exploring disused canal tunnels is dangerous and could well disturb the resident bats. So with that in mind I took a few quick photos from the tunnel entrance only.
Despite the warmth in the day, it was the month of May, I could see my breath in the torchlight. Water still filled the tunnel and the ambient temperature was very cool; a different world to the modern one above.
The tunnel was blocked with clay towards the northern end where it passes under the railway line, for fears of subsidence and tunnel collapse. It was a fascinating find and I didn’t expect the interior brickwork to be in such good condition.
The Wey South Path runs in a straight line from the tunnel’s southern exit to Greatham Bridge, following the route of the old Arun canal cut. This section, as you’ll see from my photo was the most overgrown of the entire walk.
Waist high stinging nettles prevented any modest off route exploration, keep to the path boys was the message I received loud and clear from nature. On a warm day, the shade was welcome and the varied insect life gave me plenty to look at. Every branch, every leaf had life.
Without looking at my GPS it was difficult to pinpoint my exact location until I emerged abruptly from the canal cut a few metres from Greatham Bridge, a location I have visited before.
Greatham Bridge – Amberley Wildbrooks
After fighting off the waist-high nettles it was refreshing to emerge once more under blue sky. Greatham Bridge is another Grade I listed structure and was the destination of choice for a walk I did several months ago. Today it would be en-route.
Late spring / early summer, I never can be quite sure as to the correct description but late May was the calendar date and the fields were very colourful. Ironically many people now hark back to the slower pace of rural canal life over the daily train commute.
South of Greatham Bridge is Amberley Wildbrooks, an area of floodplain that is now being carefully managed to restore wildlife after extensive drainage for many years. The land is very low-lying, as little as 6 feet above sea level in places. A change from walking the chalk escarpment as I normally do.
With that early summer sunshine still in abundance it was turning out to be a wonderful nature walk, other than a couple of road crossings, the route south was wild.
The Wildbrooks at Amberley offer 360 degree views from the flood plain, Amberley Mount, Rackham Hill, Springhead Hill, Bury Hill and on and on; the South Downs beckon you to explore.
Houghton Bridge – End Of The Way?
The Riverside Cafe at Houghton Bridge made the perfect lunchtime destination, indoor or outdoor dining and a range of tasty food to suit everyone. It was the welcome energy stop I needed, having walked close to 16 miles by now; nettle stings fading.
My friend Fozzie had to be back in Horsham so he decided to catch the train from Amberley Station and I took advantage of the fair weather and walked the South Downs Way from Houghton Bridge to Storrington, my final destination of the day.
The South Downs National Park is in places still very quiet if you explore a little off the beaten track. The South Downs Way above Amberley was busy with groups of walkers and cyclists yet the Wey South Path from Billingshurst to Houghton Bridge saw perhaps 4 or 5 people along almost all of the 16 miles.
If you are after a quiet walk in nature and don’t mind beating a path through nettles in places, then can I suggest walking the Wey South Path. The modern transport connections are good, with train stations at Billingshurst, Pulborough and Amberley.
Route: Billingshurst to Storrington.
Map of Walking Route
Distance: 20.17 miles (32.46 km)